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Sustainable Design

Written by: Nicole Brekelmans 

Edited by: Richard Perron

Sustainability is a “state in which interdependent natural, social, and economic systems prosper today without compromising their future prosperity”(Kulman & Schurke, 2001). The concept of sustainability is an integral part in the maintenance of human life and society long-term through providing a continuous cycle of essential resources and natural systems. The broad term of sustainability is further broken-down into multiple philosophies and applications, such as sustainable design. Sustainable design is a holistic view and process that involves designers taking greater responsibility of their project’s direct and indirect effect on the environment, economy, and social systems and networks (Kulman & Schurke, 2001). This process requires projects to be viewed as a life cycles with the focus on long-term and resilient development. Sustainable design is responding to the lack of environmental sensitivity within architectural and city developments that can lead to abundant usage of energy and a shortage of multiple resources. The environmental issues created through the design industry is not a recent discovery and has been addressed through the establishment of multiple sustainable principles. 


The Hannover Principles is a set of statements formulated by William McDonough and Michael Braungart while planning for the Expo 2000 in 1992. These principles focus on designing buildings and objects with the forethought of their environmental and societal impact. 

  • Humanity and nature should coexist 

  • Recognize interdependence 

  • Respect relationships between spirit and matter 

  • Accept responsibility for the consequences of design 

  • Create safe objects for long term value 

  • Eliminate the concept of waste 

  • Rely on natural energy flows 

  • Understand the limitations of design 

  • Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge

(Kulman & Schurke, 2001) 


Second Generation Ecological Design Principles were developed by Ryn Architects and the Ecological Design Institute. These principles focus on the relationship between nature, culture and technology, as well as viewing cities as complex ecosystems. 

  • Pay attention to unique qualities of place 

  • Trace direct and indirect environmental costs of design decisions 

  • Mimic nature’s process in design, allowing the design to fit into nature 

  • Honour every voice in the design process 

  • Make nature visible through design 

(Kulman & Schurke, 2001) 

Although the Hannover Principles and Second-Generation Ecological Design Principles have different focal points, these principles, along with others, share an environmental approach, seeking a balance between the built environment and nature.


Additionally, the United Nations have developed a list of Sustainable Development Goals that they are striving to achieve by 2030, with the end goal of reaching future prosperity. These sustainable goals are more general then the Hannover Principles and the Second-Generation Ecological Design Principles due its focus on large-scale global issues rather than design-based issues. 

  • No poverty

  • Zero Hunger 

  • Good Health and Well-being 

  • Provide quality Education 

  • Gender Equality 

  • Clean Water and Sanitation 

  • Affordable and clean energy 

  • Decent work and economic growth 

  • Industry-innovation and infrastructure 

  • Reduced Inequalities 

  • Sustainable cities and communities 

  • Responsible consumption and production 

  • Climate Action 

  • Manage, conserve, and enhance life below water 

  • Manage, conserve, and enhance life on land 

  • Peace, Justice, and Strong institutions 

  • Develop partnerships for the goals 

(United Nations, n.d.)


Sustainability can be achieved through a variety of strategies, designs, and scales. Material choice is the basis of many sustainable designs due to its strong impact on a project’s overall energy usage based on transportation, manufacturing, durability, and maintenance. Sourcing local materials reduces energy consumption significantly and choosing durable materials that can be reused or recycled after its lifetime can radically reduce a project’s environmental impact. A variety of building systems have been developed to reduce energy consumption such as natural air ventilation, passive heating systems, green roofs, and greywater plumbing. Buildings can also use renewable energy sources such as solar, or wind. Additionally, Smart Growth is sustainable design at the largest scale that focuses on developing cities or large communities based on sustainable networks such as active transportation, or ecological corridors (Farr, 2008).  


Smart Growth is an environmental movement started in the 1970s following suit of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act (Farr, 2008). Smart Growth is a planning-based approach for the large-scale development of cities and communities to create efficient spaces based on economic, social, and environmental savings.  The overall goal of smart growth is to plan for people and design cities that accommodate for daily needs for the average person, which requires a compact, complete, and connected space (Farr, 2008). 


Along with sustainable principles that provide long-term and large-scale goals to work towards, rating systems and certification programs such as LEED, BREAM, and SITES provide more detail-orientated and specific outcomes for individual projects. These programs also provide initiatives for designers and governments such as awards and public recognition which can both result in future projects and offers, as well as higher resale value, making it more likely that designs will incorporate sustainable practices and choices. 


BREEAM stands for Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, and it is the longest established sustainable rating system (Breeam, n.d.). BREEAM rates architectural projects based on multiple categories such as energy and water use, health and wellbeing, pollution, transport, materials, waste, and ecology and management process (Breeam, n.d.). Based on how many points a design scores the project can receive a rating of Pass, Good, Very Good, Excellent, and Outstanding which is also represented in a series of stars on the BREEAM certification (Breeam, n.d.). 


LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is the most popular sustainable building certification program in the world (U.S. Green Building Council, n.d.). LEED is also a rating system that is based on a series of categories including location and transport, sustainable sites, water and energy efficiency, material and resources, and innovation (U.S. Green Building Council, n.d.). The levels of certification range from certified, silver, gold, and platinum. BREEAM and LEED are very similar rating systems however BREEAM has the ability to adapt to specific and unique projects, while LEED is meant to have fixed standards. 


Sustainable Sites Initiative also known as SITES is a sustainable rating system that focuses on landscape and urban design such as open spaces and streetscapes and provides certification opportunities for projects that do not include buildings, unlike BREEAM and LEED which are green building rating systems (Sustainable Sites, n.d.). SITES, however, is affiliated with LEED which provides the opportunity to use the 2 rating systems in tandem or use each separately based on the overall objective of the given project (Sustainable Sites, n.d.). SITES focuses on water, soils, vegetation, materials, human health and well-being, and includes the same certification levels as LEED (Sustainable Sites, n.d.). 


Due to the popularity of sustainable rating systems and principles, sustainable design is becoming more widespread as well as becoming more required in proposed projects. Introducing more sustainable practices, especially within large-scale urban projects, results in many benefits to improve the quality of life, such as improved air quality, enhanced economic development through local sourcing, and infrastructure cost reduction through energy efficient systems (Williams, 2007). Cities and the environment are susceptible to multiple forms of disturbance and through sustainable design cities will gain the ability to adapt and be self-sufficient, working towards future prosperity. 



Coyle, S. (2011). Sustainable and resilient communities : a comprehensive action plan for towns, cities, and regions . Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.


Developing sustainable landscapes. Retrieved from


Farr, D. (2008). Sustainable urbanism : urban design with nature . Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.


Kulman, J., & Schurke, J. (2001). Sustainable design. Washington, DC: National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.


LEED green building certification. Retrieved from


The world's leading sustainability assessment method for master planning projects, infrastructure and buildings. Retrieved from


Thomas, R. (2003). Sustainable urban design : an environmental approach . London ;: Spon Press.


Williams, D. (2007). Sustainable design : ecology, architecture, and planning . Hoboken: Wiley.


United Nations. About the Sustainable Development Goals - United Nations Sustainable Development. Retrieved from

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